Capital Punishment Clinic Wins Client New Penalty Trial

In the latest in a series of decisions striking down Texas death sentences imposed before 1991, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued an opinion on April 28, vacating the death sentence of Roy G. Smith.

Smith was represented in his appeal by University of Texas School of Law professors Rob Owen and Jordan Steiker, assisted by the students of the UT Capital Punishment Clinic.

In an opinion by Judge Paul Womack, the Court unanimously declared the instructions given to the Harris County jury that condemned Smith in 1990 improperly foreclosed jurors from imposing a life sentence based on mitigating circumstances about Smith's troubled background. Those jury instructions were abandoned in 1991, when the Texas Legislature revised the statute under which Smith was sentenced to give capital jurors more discretion in sentencing.

Praising the ruling, Capital Punishment Center Co-director Owen said, "This decision vindicates the bedrock Eighth Amendment principle that in a capital case, the jury's sentencing verdict must truly reflect its view of the defendant's moral culpability. The Court rightly concluded that Mr. Smith should be re-sentenced by a jury that is not precluded from considering whether the painful facts of his troubled upbringing call for mercy."

Steiker likewise commended the Court of Criminal Appeals' decision for its reading of several recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions--all in cases handled by the UT Capital Punishment Clinic--that have mandated new sentencing trials for Texas capital defendants condemned under the pre-1991 scheme.

"The CCA did an exceptional job of looking past the erroneous decision in Mr. Smith's case by the federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and getting to the heart of the matter--the manifest unfairness of his trial--as the Supreme Court's decisions require," said Steiker, also a co-director of the Center, which oversees the clinic.

Smith will be returned to Harris County, where he may face a new sentencing trial before a new and properly instructed jury.

"There are severe economic pressures on the criminal justice system, and Mr. Smith has shown since 1990 that he poses no threat of violence in prison," Owen said. "Given those facts, the public interest would be served by avoiding the vast expense and years of uncertainty that a new capital sentencing proceeding would inevitably entail."

Both Steiker and Owen expressed their gratitude to the students of the UT Capital Punishment Clinic for their work on Smith's case.

"In addition to their fine work on the legal issues in Mr. Smith's case, our students have performed investigation that will be critically important to Mr. Smith's defense if a re-sentencing trial, in fact, becomes necessary," Owen said.